Before we landed at the Genghis Khan Airport, checked into the Genghis Khan Hotel, and drank Genghis Khan beer, everything we had heard about the most famous Mongol of all time was negative.
But that changed when we visited Mongolia in September.
You might wonder what nice things could be said about a guy who conquered more territory in 25 years than the Romans did in 400?
Well, the people we encountered perceived him as a combination of George Washington, Gen. George Patton and Martin Luther King. We were told that he brought law and order, culture and religion to Mongolia and to his many other captured lands.
To Genghis Khan fans, the fact that he had to slaughter 800,000 people along the way was worth it.
Of course, I refrained from voicing my concern about the bloodshed. Visiting other cultures is a learning experience for us and not one of trying to impose our way of thinking.
Mongolia is a vast country, landlocked between Russia and China, consisting of glacier-wrapped mountains, clear lakes, the Gobi Desert, forests and grasslands. It is about twice the size of Texas and sparsely populated with fewer than 3 million people. About a third of the people are nomads, moving from place to place with their horses, sheep, cows and camels across the far-flung fields and the huge Gobi Desert. They live in large white felt tents, known as gers. Even in the capital, there are gers interspersed among houses. Livestock in the country outnumber humans 10 to 1.
It is a centuries-old, horse-based culture that offers a unique glimpse into history. Many Mongolians ignore the trappings of the modern world and prefer life as it has always been lived. This is a living culture, not a historic artifact or display of ancient ways for tourists.
In a small park, the old men seated around a concrete table contentedly playing dominoes are doing it not because the tourism department is paying them. They are playing because that’s what they do.
The capital, Ulaanbaatar, reminded me of an early 20th-century Western town, with pubs and bars everywhere. I suppose if I lived in a place where the climate was as bad as it is there, I would be inclined to frequent these establishments, too. During the summer months the temperature can soar over 100 degrees and in the winter it can plunge to 30 below. The temperature during a single day can vary widely.
The infrastructure is not good and travel outside of the one major town by ground is difficult because of poor roads and uncertain and changing bus schedules. Our car had to stop several times to wait for a herd of sheep, goats or cows to clear the road. By tradition, these animals have the right-of-way. The best way to get around the country is by air, but, unfortunately, the two domestic airlines are not reliable.
You will find no McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken or Holiday Inn there. In fact, there was not one chain anything-hotel, restaurant or coffee house. It is truly one of the last unspoiled countries in Asia.
Mongolia’s most popular sports are wrestling and archery. The favorite food is mutton, with many variations, and the national drink is airag, a fermented mare’s milk and suutei tsai, a salty tea. In our eight-day stay, we did not acquire a taste for any of it. And we didn’t find any Mongolian barbecue either.
We asked our guide, who was about 20, what her parents and grandparents thought about the Russians leaving their country in 1990. She said they were very sad. As with most of the Soviet “satellites,” their economy was geared to complement the rest of the USSR and not to stand alone. They were ill-equipped to fend for themselves, economically, militarily or politically. After a few steps backward, they have made some progress, but it is slow. The government is democratic and the major religions are Buddhism, Tibetan and Islam.
Based upon our two-hour ride on Mongolian horses through the mountainous countryside and the obvious care, affection and pride of the horses’ owner, Katrina and I agree that the following statement from Lonely Planet reflects Mongolian sentiment:
“Mongolians sing to their animals: there are lullabies to coax sheep to suckle their lambs, croons to control a goat, to milk a cow or imitate a camel’s cry-there are far more Mongolian songs about the love of a good horse than the love of a good woman.”
Basile is an author, professional speaker, philanthropist and senior vice president of the Gene B. Glick Co. His column appears whenever there’s a fifth Monday in the month.The next one will run March 31.To comment on this column or to request a copy of the first two installments, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org mail to 3564 Clearwater Circle, Indianapolis, IN 46240.